Saturday, July 10, 2010

Implications of an Elected Senate

Since his election in 2005 Harper has been pushing to reform the Senate. As witnessed in his 2006 and 2010 senate reform bills he wants senators to be elected and have a term limit of about 8 years. By doing this Harper says he hopes to bring accountability and legitimacy to the Senate.

There are a number of problems with his plan.

1. He can't change these things without a constitutional amendment

The Constitution Act 1982 §42 (1)(b) states:
(1) An amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to the following matters may be made only in accordance with subsection 38(1):
(b) the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators;

This means that if Harper wants Senators to be elected or to have an 8 year term limit, he needs to get the approval of Parliament, the Senate, and at least 7 provincial legislatures who have a total of at least 50% of the population. The CPC has argued that the election part of this can be circumvented since, the PM will simply appoint whoever wins the elections. But lets not fool ourselves, even if I accept this method it's facially still a change to method of selecting Senators.

As to the ability to limit the term of Senators, I don't know how Harper can, could, will argue that this is not an alteration to the powers of the Senate. Based on his plans for Senate election, my best guess that that he intends to create a practice whereby Senators voluntarily step down after 8 years...

But assuming that he manages to constitutionally weasel his way around this "minor" problem I still don't see how these will improve the Senate's legitimacy or accountability.

If Senators are limited to a single 8 year term, then who does this make them accountable to? Not the public, since we would only be electing them once, and if they did a bad job we couldn't recall them and we would have no opportunity to show our disapproval by voting the bum out. The government doesn't have the power to oust a Senator from his seat (nor should they), so this wouldn't make them accountable to the government. So neither elections nor term limits provide improved accountability.

But what about legitimacy, surely by having elected Senators would mean that they would reflect the people's preferences and give them greater legitimacy. There's several problems with this belief.

A party leader, like the PM, has the power to refuse party membership to anyone they choose. This means that the PM would still be able to select who could run under his party's label in any particular riding (the same is true for MPs), thus the people's ability to choose would be limited. On the other hand you could still choose between several candidates, who would probably be elected using the same flawed system that we use for our MPs (see previous post) so in almost every case the winner wouldn't have the support of a majority of those elected.

If we elected senators it would change the way that the Senate works. Today Senators are reluctant to use their veto power on a bill because Parliament is elected and they are not. Therefore if they become elected this reluctance would likely evaporate. Similarly, depending on how the system of elections is set up we may be faced with an entirely new Senate every 8 years, which would limit its capacity for "sober second thought" since it would be more politically charged.

What happens to currently appointed Senators?
Presumably they would stay on under the old system until they reached 75. When they do retire presumably we'd either have to wait for the next cycle of elections until the seat was filled OR immediately hold an election. The former result would mean empty seats for up to 8 years and the latter would mean that Senatorial elections would be based on when the last holder under the old system retired.  Either way seems like more trouble than it's worth.

What about §26 of the Constitution Act 1867?
This provision allows the governor general (read PM) to appoint 4 or 8 new Senators at any time they much equally represent the four regions of Canada: Maritime, Quebec, Ontario, Western.  There can be no more than 113 Senators at any time.  

Would these be elected too or would the PM retain the right to appoint these extra Senators?  The latter of these cases tends to undermine the aims of this reformation in the first place.  Yet there has been no statements made by the PMO regarding this obscure part of the constitution (which is responsible for the creation of the GST btw).

Who will pay for these elections?
The PM has stated that it will be up to the province whether or not they will hold Senatorial elections, which probably means that they will also be responsible for providing funds to their campaigns (at least part of it).  If this is the case then Harper is trying to dine and dash: he's taking the credit and leaving the provinces with the bill.  Makes you wonder what ever happened to the CPC being about fiscal responsibility.

But even if the federal government does the responsible thing and provides adequate funding to candidates, the fact remains that elections aren't cheap.  

Whether it comes out of our federal or provincial taxes we need to ask:

Is it worth the cost?

As I stated earlier: Senatorial elections will likely lead to an increased use of their veto power, which will in turn slow the political process down.  It has the potential to cause regional/provincial interests trump those of national importance which would look far more like the US Senate.  It will cause the Senate to be less about sober second thought than regionally charged bickering, leading to needless concessions and expenditure just to buy the votes needed to pass anything.

Reform may make the Senate more democratic than it currently is, but it adds an entirely new quagmire of red tape for legislation to have to go through.  If we want a better democracy it makes more sense to reform the way elections are conducted for the house because it would solve an existing problem rather than just opening a whole new can of pain.  'Democratising' the Senate will not enhance the lives of everyday Canadians, it will not make our politics better, nor make us think better of politicians.  

It will cost more: provincially for elections, federally to run the Senate.  

It will be less efficient because Senators can and will hold up bills for regional purposes

It will be less effective because there will be no sober second thought on bills.

1 comment:

  1. I totally agree. It's not like the Senate is some authoritarian oligarchy opposing its will on us anyways. The Senate is not standing in the way of democracy in Canada; the PMO on the other hand...